Wednesday, February 3, 2010

biotechnology


In this paper, I argue that biotechnology is a movement that comprises conflicting actors
competing for representations in the public sphere that favor their particular vision of the
future. Two dimensions of representation can be observed in the arenas of the public sphere:
issue salience and issue framing. During the 1990s, the salience of biotechnology in the
British public increased considerably, and its representation significantly changed. The issue
of whether biotechnology is one or several things has preoccupied many actors and observers.
Most things in the world are unified and multiple, depending on how closely one looks at it.
The important question is: Which distinction prevails? When the good, the bad, and the ugly
settle, where do they fall? Evaluation implies distinction, and representation drives attitude.
The controversies over biotechnology prove a fertile and dynamic ground on which to study
this issue.
During the 1990s, the UK saw the emergence of the RED–GREEN contrast in
biotechnology, separating biomedical from agri-food applications. This happened during
the course of public controversies over cloning, GM food, and the release of GM crops
into the environment after 1996. These public debates culminated, after a long review
process, in the realignment of the British regulatory framework for biotechnology in 2000—
yielding one authority for plant and food biotechnology: The Agricultural & Environment
Biotechnology Commission (AEBC), and one authority for human genetic research, Human
Genetic Commission (HGC).22 Whether or not this convergence of mass media, public
perceptions, and regulation is purely coincidental or is “causally related” is ultimately very
difficult to assess.
This paper investigates the part played by the mass media in the emergence of this social
fact, the contrast of RED and GREEN biotechnology. Technologies that had been perceived
as equally promising became separated. In public perception, while assimilation increased
between 1996 and 1999 in the population at large, the contrast effect emerged among the readers
of newspapers and among the more knowledgeable population. The cultivation effect accounts
in part for this development. The British quality press shaped public opinion on biotechnology
by cultivating a contrastive representation of biotechnology to which the regulatory framework
was aligned by 2000.
As the evidence in this paper shows, speculation remains about how this RED–GREEN
contrast relates to the realignment of the regulatory framework and how it might impact future
developments in the UK. It seems, however, a given that this contrast followed the controversy
of the mid-1990s over cloning, GM food, and crops, putting GREEN into a negative light
and RED into a positive one. Because negative events receive more attention in public than
positive ones, this representation highlights agri-food issues such as environmental impacts
and food safety. What could have become equally controversial issues of RED biotechnology,
such as gene patenting, genetic testing and screening, privacy of information, genetic therapy,
and stem cell cloning, remained largely shielded from wider public attention and scrutiny.23
Following the detective’s logic of “who gains from a crime must be a suspect,” the
proponents of biomedical biotechnology may be suspected of having created this contrast
in order to gain a strategic advantage in public opinion and in the regulatory field. In the
logic of corporate communication, the bad news about agri-food biotechnology masks the
potentially bad news about biomedical applications. This may find historical analogies in the
machinations of the water and coal industry, which, in the past, undermined the case of the
© 2002 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
Downloaded from http://pus.sagepub.com at Ebsco Host temp on July 14, 2007
Public perception data are drawn from Eurobarometer, the survey instrument funded by the
European Community (EC). Designed as an omnibus survey once or twice a year, it carries a
“locomotive” of items related to European integration and one or several “wagons” of special
interests. Eurobarometer 46.1 (1996) and 52.1 (1999) each contained a battery of questions
related to modern biotechnology, most of which are strictly comparable. The interviews were
conducted face-to-face in the UK, including Northern Ireland, based on a stratified-random
schedule sample. The interviews for both 1996 and 1999 took place in October/November.
Error margins on raw percentages are maximum of ±2% (N-1996 = 1,390, N-1999 = 1,357).
The author has been involved in designing the questionnaire instrument on biotechnology on
both occasions as part of the project “Biotechnology and the European Public,” of which he is
a co-coordinator since 1995.
RED–GREEN contrasts in public judgments
Eurobarometer 46.1 (1996) and 52.1 (1999) carried the following attitudinal questions:
• Food: Use modern biotechnology in the production of foods, for example to make them
higher in protein, keep longer, or change the taste.
• Crop: Taking genes from plant species and transferring them into crop plants to make
them more resistant to insect pests.
• Medicine: Introducing human genes into bacteria to produce medicines and vaccines, for
example, to produce insulin for diabetics.
• Gene testing: Using genetic testing to detect diseases we might have inherited from our
parents, such as cystic fibrosis.
Respondents are asked to rate each of these items on a five-point scale, 1 = definitely agree,
2 = tend to agree, 3 = tend to disagree, 4 = definitely disagree, 5 = Don’t Know (DK), using
the following four criteria:
© 2002 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
Downloaded from http://pus.sagepub.com at Ebsco Host temp on July 14, 2007
Public perception data are drawn from Eurobarometer, the survey instrument funded by the
European Community (EC). Designed as an omnibus survey once or twice a year, it carries a
“locomotive” of items related to European integration and one or several “wagons” of special
interests. Eurobarometer 46.1 (1996) and 52.1 (1999) each contained a battery of questions
related to modern biotechnology, most of which are strictly comparable. The interviews were
conducted face-to-face in the UK, including Northern Ireland, based on a stratified-random
schedule sample. The interviews for both 1996 and 1999 took place in October/November.
Error margins on raw percentages are maximum of ±2% (N-1996 = 1,390, N-1999 = 1,357).
The author has been involved in designing the questionnaire instrument on biotechnology on
both occasions as part of the project “Biotechnology and the European Public,” of which he is
a co-coordinator since 1995.
RED–GREEN contrasts in public judgments
Eurobarometer 46.1 (1996) and 52.1 (1999) carried the following attitudinal questions:
• Food: Use modern biotechnology in the production of foods, for example to make them
higher in protein, keep longer, or change the taste.
• Crop: Taking genes from plant species and transferring them into crop plants to make
them more resistant to insect pests.
• Medicine: Introducing human genes into bacteria to produce medicines and vaccines, for
example, to produce insulin for diabetics.
• Gene testing: Using genetic testing to detect diseases we might have inherited from our
parents, such as cystic fibrosis.
Respondents are asked to rate each of these items on a five-point scale, 1 = definitely agree,
2 = tend to agree, 3 = tend to disagree, 4 = definitely disagree, 5 = Don’t Know (DK), using
the following four criteria:
© 2002 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
Downloaded from http://pus.sagepub.com at Ebsco Host temp on July 14, 2007
carried a number of knowledge items on
biotechnology. Five of them are strictly comparable across the years. For each item the
respondent indicates whether the statement is true or false. The items form a reliable scale,
once they are coded for correct and incorrect answers.
• There are bacteria that live from waste water (true = correct).
• The cloning of living things produces exactly identical offspring (true = correct).
• Yeast for brewing beer consists of living organisms (true = correct).
• It is possible to find out in the first few months of pregnancy whether a child will have
Down’s syndrome (true = correct).
• More than half of human genes are identical to those of chimpanzees (true = correct).
© 2002 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution
Newspaper message attention by proxy
To measure media message attention or exposure to the press message, we use a proxy
measure. Eurobarometer question Q10 asks: “Before today, had you ever talked about modern
biotechnology with anyone? [If yes] had you talked about it frequently, occasionally, or only
once or twice?” Responses are re-coded into a dummy variable: 0 = no talk, 1 = having talked
about.
Cultivation analysis requires a measure of exposure to the mass media message that is part
of the analysis. We assume that people read one or several newspapers to enrich their daily
conversations at work, in the pub, or at home. There is indeed a correlation between reading
newspapers in general and talking about an issue. This suggests that we can use question
Q10, “having talked about biotechnology,” as a proxy for message discrimination in the press
and general newspaper readership. We assume that people who admittedly “have talked about
biotechnology in the recent past” (conversation) also (a) regularly read elite newspapers that
were analyzed in the course of this project (newspaper exposure), and (b) if they read their
newspaper, they pay attention to the newspaper message about biotechnology (newspaper
message discrimination).
This measure by proxy is our only option for 1996, as we do not have questions directly
comparable to 1999 that would allows us to determine whether or not a talking respondent
is also a reader of an elite newspaper and someone who pays attention to biotechnology:
However, the analysis of the 1999 data shows that
• 30 percent of respondents had talked about biotechnology before the survey interview.
• Quality newspaper reading and “talking about biotech” correlate (r = 0.34, n = 297).
For 1996, equivalent data are not available.
• Among the 30 percent of respondents who talked about biotech
Variables in content analysis of the elite press
The content analysis of the elite presswas conducted on a random sample of newspaper articles
stratified by year from 1973 to 1999. In the UK, the London Times was chosen until 1987.
After 1987, the British Library replaced the Times with the Independent as the daily newspaper
of record with opinion-leader function for the other media, and our sample followed that move.
The population of articles on biotechnology over the period is estimated to be N = 10,000 in
one single quality newspaper; the sample size of the study is n = 819 over the whole period,
giving a sampling ratio of 0.08. The main coding categories, RED and GREEN themes and
frames, used in this analysis are shown in Tables 3 and 4.25 The analysis considered a total
of ten biotechnology themes clustering as many as forty different sub-themes. Articles with
the theme of RED or GREEN biotechnology are therefore only a subset of the total sample of articles.






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